Saturday, December 25, 2021

Five Ideas from 2021

Given the back-to-back holiday weekends, I thought I'd go easy on myself blog-wise and just share a few favorite quotes from books I read in 2021. As we wrap up the year, here are a five ideas that stuck with me:

"If, while writing, you must always be proving that you write well, the writing will suffer. If you must be establishing something about yourself that is not established, you will tart up the writing in some way or other, and do pyrotechnics rather than the particular work of fiction, which, because it is committedly local - about these specific characters, this particular place - runs the risk of seeming inconsequential. One must arrogate the permission to write. One must shrug before icons."

-Bonnie Friedman, Writing Past Dark

"If you have turned your mind to higher things, there is no need of a judge to award a prize; it is you yourself who have brought yourself to a more excellent state: but if you have directed your zeal towards lower things, do not look for punishment from without; it is you yourself who have plunged yourself into the worse condition."

-Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 


"Thankfulness is a logic, a framework, a way of seeing that doesn't eliminate the bad or the awful, but frames it. A frame contains something, provides a boundary. A good frame on artwork lets you see it properly."

-Mary Coons, The Art of Noticing

"My job is to do, not to judge. It is a great piece of luck, a privilege, to spend each day leaping, stumbling, leaping again. As is true of so much of life, it isn't what I thought it would be when I was first starting out. The price is high: the tension, isolation, and lack of certitude can sometimes wear me down. But then there is the aliveness. The queer, divine dissatisfaction. The blessed unrest."

-Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

"The world considers it dangerous to venture in this way - and why? Because it is possible to lose. Not to venture is prudent. And yet, precisely by not venturing it is so terribly easy to lose what would be hard to lose, however much one lost by risking, and in any case never this way, so easily, so completely, as if it were nothing at all - namely, oneself. If I have ventured wrongly, well, then life helps me by punishing me. But if I have not ventured at all, who helps me then?"

-Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death 


Sunday, December 19, 2021

This Year in Writing, Part 2: Getting to Work

Last week, I wrote about my rejections. This week will be a little more cheerful. First, because good things happened this year – stories sold, goals achieved, lessons learned – but also because I'm sitting down to write this with a couple lines from Dani Shapiro's “Still Writing” rattling around in my head:
“I try to remember that to sit down and write is a gift. That if I do not seize this day, it will be lost. I think of writers I admire who are no longer living. I'm aware that the simple fact of being here creates a kind of responsibility, even a moral one, to get to work.”
All of this – the good, the bad, and the ugly – was a gift. With that in mind, here's what I learned.

2021: Goals and Lessons Learned

I thought I'd start by sharing my goals for 2021, including what I managed and where I fell short, and writing a little bit about what I learned from it all. Here's how this year shook out:

Goal: Write and post a weekly blog entry

Some of the most fun I had writing this year came from my weekly blog posts. This blog has served as a good way to share life updates, think out loud about books, and chew on different ideas.

On the other hand, that approach means this blog is kind of a hodgepodge, and there are probably more posts about Kierkegaard than anyone actually has an appetite for. Ah, well!

Goal: Write for 500 hours this year

I hesitated to share the actual numbers here. I thought maybe I should be more vague, just say something like “I successfully wrote on a regular schedule this year.” 500 hours just doesn't sound like that much, especially not in the age of Outliers when we all know it takes 10,000 hours (at least) of disciplined practice to approach expertise.

But then I decided, fuck it. If it takes me another 19 years at this pace, then that's what it takes. The point is I showed up every week, did what I set out to do, and I'm not going to feel bad about it now while I'm tallying things up. 

Goal: Write 100 short stories

Man, I don't know. Sometimes you just need to pick a ridiculous mountain to climb and hope you learn something in the attempt. I only ended up writing 18 stories this year, just four of which I revised to the point of being submission-ready, and only one of which was actually accepted.

I did learn how to write better first drafts, though, and how to plot a story while leaving room for surprise. I don't think it's a total coincidence that the four I chose to revise were all written in a cluster toward the end of the year. Something was starting to click, and either I was doing better work or I fully surrendered to my own self-delusions. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

Goal: Query a novel while writing a new one
Kind of achieved

I spent most of 2021 querying a novel I finished last year, and wrestling with the first draft of something new that I honestly don't know what to do with. I had this idea that I could create a kind of production line – query a finished novel, revise one that was already drafted, and start writing something totally new. But the reality hasn't been quite that smooth.

That new novel isn't just rough, I'm not even sure what shape it should be. And if there's anything I've learned from querying this year, it's that fuzzy genre lines don't do you any favors in the querying process.

Now I'm working on something much more firmly in the crime and mystery genre, which is also where I've had the best luck placing short stories. Maybe this will pay off and maybe it won't, but it's where I'm putting my focus.

Goal: Earn 100 rejections

I wrote about this last week, so I won't dwell on it too much again, but it is a milestone. And while I might be a little banged up from the process, I can now definitely say I know what it's like, and that I know what it takes to get there.

Publications + Acceptances

This seems like the right note to end on for a year-in-review that began with a post about rejection. I was lucky this year to have a couple pieces published and a couple more accepted for 2022, including:

In Another Country
I don't write a lot of nonfiction, but this piece was commissioned by my local PBS station during the release of “Hemingway,” the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I took the chance to write about a Hemingway story that I've always found haunting, and about my dad's struggle with frontotemporal degeneration.

An Indiana Grand
I've experimented the last couple of years with writing crime fiction under the name Craig Francis Coates, including this story. It's part of a series about rideshare driver Jon Cassidy and was picked up by Tough, where it got to rub shoulders with work by writers like Nick Mamatas and S. A. Cosby – very cool company to be in.

The second Jon Cassidy story I sold this year, this time to The Dark City mystery magazine. Aside from In Another Country, this was the only story I both wrote and published in 2021.

Mr. Sentimentality (Forthcoming)
The third Jon Cassidy story to be accepted this year, and the fourth one that I've published. Unlike the others, this one's less of a genre piece and more focused on Jon and his dad. It'll be released by BULL some time next year.

The Questionnaires (Forthcoming)
I spent my undergrad temping before spending several more years working in retail, which is probably why I gravitate to writing about people who work shitty jobs. This story, about a survey administrator hustling to make money for his son's birthday, will appear next year in Litro.

And with that, we put a bow on this year. I'll be back next week with our regularly scheduled programming, including the much anticipated posts Christmas Cookies That Look Like a Certain Danish Existentialist and It's the Day After New Year's, So I'm Going to Lazily Share Quotes from Better Writers Than Me.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

This Year in Writing, Part 1: Big Bowls of Dirt

It's tricky to write about failure. Even putting the word there at the end of the sentence feels like a harsh place to land. Still, I think any accurate accounting of my writing this year means I need to include the bad with the good. Failure is part of both the creative process and the publication process – the internal and external aspects of writing. As such, it deserves some consideration.

I've been submitting stories for publication since I was sixteen years old, and rejections still sting. Not every one, maybe, but sometimes you're in a bad mood and you didn't sleep well and also you might need a snack. And then you make the mistake of opening your email and there it is: "Dear Writer." You already know what it says.

But the sting doesn't last forever. At sixteen I bounced back because I was young and fairly stupid and knew I had a lot left to learn. Now, many years later, the resilience comes from having been through this process before (and realizing I have even more to learn than I thought).

I say all this as a preface because I'm generally surrounded by kind and empathetic people. And when you announce to kind people that you've just eaten a big bowl of dirt, they start to get a little concerned. When you then explain that no, this is actually good news, because it was your biggest bowl yet, they do not find it very reassuring.

But that's the name of the game. Every year you try to fail more than the last, because that's your best chance to succeed.

I read recently that, on average, cold calling only succeeds about 2% of the time. Imagine being the salesman making those calls, knowing that you'll have to hear forty-nine nos before you ever get to a yes. Now imagine you're selling something you yourself made, and also that you're making no money. 
That's more or less the life of the writer. The duck may be calm on the surface, but, baby, under the water we're paddling.

Here's a snapshot of my failures this year:


I've removed the names of the journals, but I think you still get the idea. Each red square is a rejection. Orange squares are rejections, too, but ones where the journal invited me to try them again. Yellow squares are pending submissions, and the blue squares are where I withdrew a story, usually after an acceptance (in green).

As you can see, green isn't doing so hot! If this were a game of Risk, green would be flipping the table right about now as red armies sweep over the globe. In total, when it came to short stories, here are my 2021 numbers:



But wait! What about that nasty looking streak of red across the bottom? Why, that's my novel, of course! And those rejections look something like this:


That's as far as my screen will zoom out, or else I could show you some more. You may also notice some other colors showing up on the screen. Black squares here represent a manuscript request that later became a rejection. Pink – that lone, solitary little pop on the spreadsheet – is a manuscript request that's still being considered. The rest of that terrible thermometer shows my long streak of rejection.

All told, I've had 66 queries rejected, with likely quite a few more to come. Add to the short story rejections and you get 110 in all, beating my original goal of 100. (We did it, America!)

Does that feel great? Well, no, not really. But it's not insurmountable, either. And if rejection does have one redeeming quality it's that it doesn't change very much. A "no" is the same now as when I was sending out work at sixteen. It's the good bits – getting the "yes," achieving new goals, figuring out new ways to do things – that have the variety and all the excitement, and it's there that I'll pick up next week.

Sunday, December 5, 2021

On Notice

It's the season of dead car batteries here in the Midwest. Last weekend, just a month after changing my own, we had to jump my wife's battery, too. It took us a good thirty minutes, and I'm still not sure whether that was because the battery was so completely drained or if it was because the cables were not quite connected as well as they should be.

Finally, though, the engine turned over. Once it was running again we unhooked the cables, gently lowered the hood, and drove all over the neighborhood to make sure the battery reached a full charge. We were careful never to stray more than a few blocks from home, just in case the car died at a stop and we had to walk back. 

And as we rolled up and down alleys and through nearby streets, something strange seemed to happen. Maybe it was because we were driving so slowly, or because the possibility that the car would die kept us alert in the moment. Whatever the case, our old familiar territory suddenly seemed different. Everywhere we went, we would spot something we had never noticed before.

In Rob Walker's book The Art of Noticing, he shares ideas and practices designed to help people see something new within their surroundings. Some of them are very simple, like deciding before you set out on a walk that you'll count how many yellow objects you see. Some take a bit more commitment. In one exercise, titled “Monitor Your Sonic Profile,” Walker invites readers to keep a journal of all the noises they make in a day – sniffles, stomach gurgles, songs whistled to oneself in the car, the click-clack of typing away on a keyboard. The idea is to bring more awareness to the things you've learned to tune out.

After reading through enough of them, it's hard to know whether to describe the exercises as mental frameworks or maybe just games games. Really, they're both – the game is to play around with different frameworks to find out what you'll see.

As I read the book, I kept thinking about personality tests. Judging by the popularity of enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, Strengths Finders, and all kinds of others, it seems like there's an endless appetite for finding a framework that will tell us certain kind of stories about the person we are.

Where it all gets mucked up is that we start to believe these stories are true. It would be as though you told yourself I am a person who always notices yellow objects and made that a core part of your identity. Over years and years of practice, it would probably feel that way. But just because something is ingrained does not make it immutable. You could look for green objects instead.

The person who thinks I'm a nice human being who does nice things for others will have a very different way of noticing the world than the one who privately believes I am a bastard who hates other people. Yet both are essentially games. In both cases the thinker steps into a role and sees the world from a particular perspective. We just forget sometimes that we're playing.

But Walker's exercises remind us these things can actually be a whole lot more fluid. Maybe it's true we have inborn tendencies, but these are less rigid than we like to believe. By disrupting old habits and practicing new ones, we develop new patterns of thought. And we don't have to wait until our car battery dies to find a time to begin.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...